The Three Realms – Ichinen Sanzen Pt 3

In Part 1 of this series of essays on the Buddhist concept of Ichinen Sanzen we looked at the Ten Worlds, and in Part 2 we studied the concept of the Ten Factors. So, in this penultimate study of Ichinen Sanzen, we are going to turn our attention to the concept of the Three Realms.

As covered previously, the Ten Worlds do not relate to places in the three dimensional sense, but to life states that constantly change from moment to moment. These ten life states are the raw material that undergo the Ten Factors of appearance and nature, power, influence and causality to ensure the phenomenon we know as our life continues in a manner entirely consistent with the Mystic Law.

The Three Realms, then, offer the final stage upon which our lives are played out. They are the connection to what we usually refer to as the “real world”, and allow expression of the Ten Worlds through the Ten Factors. The use of the word realm comes from the Japanese seken, which can mean distinction, or diversity.

The Three Realms are:

As we shall see, they each possess both a more literal interpretation and one that underlines the spiritual or metaphysical aspects of life.

The Realm of the Five Components

Not to be confused with the Nine Consciousnesses, the five components refer to an individual’s physical, psychological and subconscious being (and non-being!) Buddhism regards all sentient life as a temporary coming together of these five components. In his work “The Three Secret Teachings” 26th High Priest Nichikan states, “What we call a living being is a temporary harmonizing of the five components.”

The Sanskrit term for the five components is skandhas, meaning pile, heap, or cluster. These five components (with their Sanskrit names) are explored as follows.

Form – Rupa

Form refers to our physical body, and the first five of the nine consciousnesses (the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) that provide the information to our brain. Our form is the instrument of our actions, and is the interface whereby the Ten Worlds are expressed through our words and deeds.

Without great conscious effort and training, form usually betrays our underlying life state. Lie detectors are good at detecting minute changes in our “form”, and perhaps clairvoyants too are adept at observing one’s form through the process of interrogation. These changes can include fidgeting, pupil dilation, eye movements, perspiration, respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, voice fluctuations, galvanic response and others – the list is extensive and probably available from your nearest government intelligence agency.

Psychotics or sociopaths, on the other hand, can execute the most terrible acts while remaining exceptionally free of emotional discomfort. Under interrogation such people have retained steady heart rates, with no change in the above factors. It is this very lack of natural response that can assist clinicians in detecting the presence of a psychotic or sociopathic condition.

Without form, we have no appearance, and so no entity; we are dead. In death, we have no direct power, or influence. Therefore we cannot create new causes or manifest new effects (i.e. no ghosts!).

Perception – Vedana

With only our form, we are unable to process the raw input from our physical senses. Perception (or sensation) is the function of the mind that brings together the different sensory inputs to form a cohesive picture. Our mind, like the central maypole, brings together the threads of our senses and weaves them into a cohesive representation. It allows us to discriminate between different sensory experiences; to tell the difference between a tomato and an apple, for example. Perception is also regarded as the sixth consciousness.

Imagine a supermarket checkout barcode scanner. Without the computer database to interpret the signals from the camera, then the till won’t know a tin of beans from a bag of apples. In this case, the computer database allows the till to “perceive” or differentiate between the products being scanned.

Human beings are far more complex than a checkout till, and so it should come as no surprise that things can go wrong in far more interesting ways. Although perception is an automatic function of the mind, our bodies can interfere by creating stimuli without any external assistance. For example, when we feel sick, our body produces pain, or when we are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, we can hallucinate.

As we will explore shortly, there is also the possibility of the body being influenced by our mind, and to such an extent that it can produce its own stimuli.

Conception – Samnja


This is the stage at which our perceptions meet with our existing knowledge and we create a mental image of what is being perceived. For example, our conceptualisation of an apple might form an image of a bowl of apples, or we might imagine the different types of apple we know of. We perhaps recall that they grow on trees, or that they are used to make cider. It’s basically the stage of thinking where we explore the world of “apples”. We can look at any number of apples, even varieties we have never experienced before, and still recognise them as being an apple.

The stage of conception is purely a mental process, and yet it can be influenced strongly by our gender, desires and Karma. For example (excuse the sexual stereotyping), men often don’t notice when a woman alters her hair style or other aspect of her appearance. However, her girlfriends are almost certain to comment! Mens’ eyes are no less effective than women’s but their conception of a situation is often tainted by other concerns, whereas women are perhaps more receptive to changes in a friend’s appearance, men might be more likely to notice a new camera, mobile phone or other gadget.

As we alluded to above, our perception and conception can be interfered with by our subconscious (volition). We evolved from creatures who’s brains relied heavily on animal reactions to survive. These creatures did not possess the same power of reason as humans, and so reacted instinctively to situations that natural selection had already proven to be threatening.

For our conception to be clear and without distortion we must purify our senses. Purifying our five senses allows us to see things as they really are – not how our volition (influenced by our Karma) tells us they are. This is achieved only through manifesting our Buddhahood, and again, this is what we aim for when we chant to the Gohonzon.

Volition – Samskara

In many cases this component (called Samskara in Sanskrit) is documented as meaning simply our conscious will to act. However, as I’ve already alluded to in conception, above, some patterns of behaviour are almost reflexive, and involve little or no rational thought. Therefore the word volition, then is perhaps not the most accurate English translation. Samskara, I believe, is more akin to tendency, habit and predisposition. However, we’ll stick with using volition now we’ve qualified it’s meaning in this context.

Modern psychology, psychoanalysis and neurology have developed a rich understanding of the various functions within the brain. Some parts of the brain operate more or less autonomously. For example the brain stem including the sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous system regulate our respiration, metabolism and so on – rather like an autopilot, and they are reflexive in nature. That is to say, we are all but powerless to gain any reliable control over them.

Other parts of the brain manage our higher cognitive and behavioural functions, and I would argue that perhaps at this point a distinction should be drawn to further clarify volition as it is described within the context of the five components.

At a glance, the five components may be viewed as five increasingly higher order components of our physical and mental being. However, volition is placed in a key position between our conception and our consciousness. Why is this?

If the skandha of Samskara represents actions based purely upon our own free will, our reflective, and rational self, our consciousness, then surely it would make sense to place it at the end of the list – as the final physical output, as it were, of our being. Why put it where it is?

I believe it is placed between conception and consciousness for two good reasons. The first is its role as mediator between our instinctive animalism, and our higher functioning of reason, reflection and contemplation. In modern scientific terms, then our volition, or Samskara is most accurately represented by our subconscious.

The second, and equally important role, is it being the connection to our Karmic storehouse, also called our Alaya, or eighth consciousness.

Crucially, our initial conceptions are instantly filtered through the goggles of our volition (A in diagram). What gets passed to our higher consciousness (B) is subtly and invariably tainted with our preconceptions based on our Karma and habitual patterns of thinking – our subconscious. This process takes place constantly and exerts more control over our lives than we give credit for.

For example, while walking home at night we might walk straight past a dark alleyway, despite it providing us with a shortcut home. When we get home, we probably don’t remember making the decision to avoid a potentially dangerous detour. So, it’s important to note that our inner voice has both positive and negative aspects in terms of our quest to free ourselves from the sufferings of existence.

Consciousness (ego) – Vijnana

If our volition is the aircraft’s auto pilot and instrumentation, then our consciousness is the guy sat in the cockpit, clutching the controls with white knuckles, one eye fixed on the instruments, the other scanning the horizon for safe passage through the storm clouds of our life.

Our consciousness is that part of us with which we are perhaps most familiar. After all, it’s the part of you that’s reading this article, the part we feel is most clever, and ingenious. We tend to believe our consciousness is the part of us that makes the executive decisions that steers our life in the major sense. Or is it just an illusion of self?

Having discussed how one’s conception can be distorted by the component of volition (our subconscious), we can now explore the bidirectional relationship between our consciousness and our volition.

Our consciousness is also represented in another model of Buddhist thought – the concept of the nine consciousnesses. Our ego, or notion of self in this model corresponds to the seventh consciousness. It represents our subjective wisdom, and is influenced heavily by our Karma (eighth, or Alaya consciousness). In my diagram this influence is represented by the (B) pathway.

This relationship is one in which the conscious self is influenced by the habitual patterns of thought and deed perpetuated by our volition. Like a propaganda machine, our volition is fiercely protective of its dogma, and it regularly deceives and bullies our conscious self into compliance.

Anyone who has suffered from phobias, addictions, or OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) will know how trying to exercise conscious willpower over their habitual behaviour often results in substantial physical and psychological suffering – at least in the short term. This is due in part to the psychosomatic pathway between our volition (our subconscious) and our body (form), thus creating both acute and chronic physical symptoms; in turn creating a feedback cycle through our five components, gaining further reinforcement with each iteration.

When our conscious thinking and ego rationalises and reinforces the propaganda being fed to it by our volition, then we are doomed. I know for a fact that some of the worst air disasters and sea disasters in the world have been due to what is euphemistically termed “human factors”, but generally boil down to subordinate officers being too afraid to question the decisions of a captain.

Overcoming the distortions fed to our waking mind from our subconscious is key to us revealing our Buddhahood. We can consciously influence our volition via pathway C in the diagram.

So, what about this reverse relationship; what effect does the conscious mind have upon our volition (and our Karma)? When we allow our conscious mind to coast, we tend to meander around the lowest six of the Ten Worlds. In this state our conscious mind is constantly exposed to the six paths, and tends to rationalise and reinforce behaviour that leads to further suffering. Pathways B and C can therefore become the means by which we are eternally trapped in a cycle of suffering.

To escape the six paths, we have to make a conscious effort – we have to engage the full weight of our consciousness. The four noble paths of learning, realisation, bodhisattva, and Buddhahood can only be activated when we make a conscious effort. We can’t manifest the world of learning, and we can’t apply that learning (the world of realisation) without thinking about it and concentrating.

When we learn a new skill, be it speaking a new language, riding a horse, or learning to fly it takes great conscious effort to avoid making the most basic mistakes. This is because our conscious mind is totally locked into a struggle with our volition (our tendencies) to over-ride our natural tendencies. In effect, the C pathway is more influential than the B pathway.

I remember my first flying lesson when I incorrectly tried to steer the plane on the ground with the yoke (which looks like a steering wheel), instead of using the rudder pedals – to my instructor’s alarm! My poor volition was so used to driving a car, it took some time for we to switch into pilot mode when climbing into a plane. But, over several hours, it became second nature to use my feet to steer the plane – I modified my volition, my tendencies.

This process does not just apply to the worlds of learning and realisation; it can also hold true for the world of bodhisattva and Buddhahood. For many people, showing compassion or gratitude to others just doesn’t come naturally; while others fail to show these things to themselves. Subjugated by their volition and pathway B, such people are unable to change their ways, and destine themselves to a life in the lower worlds.

Compassion and gratitude are things we have to consciously engage in if we want to improve our Karma, and our natural tendencies (volition). When we make the conscious effort to connect with the hearts of others to lessen their suffering, we are empowering pathway C – we over-ride any negativity from our volition, and begin the process of retraining.

Our practice of chanting the Daimoku (or title) of the Lotus Sutra is what awakens our Buddhahood. This practice directly influences our volition, and our Karma, dispelling negativity, and our delusions.

Nichiren used the analogy of our lives (our Karma) being akin to a tarnished mirror, and that the practice of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo polished the mirror giving us a clear view of ourselves, and the universe.

Dirty lens of our Karma – with thanks to

While exploring the paradigm of the five components, I propose an analogy whereby our volition, which sits between our conception and our consciousness, behaves like a lens. When it is tarnished, the information arriving in our conscious thought is unclear and clouded, and as a result we make poor decisions, and create harmful causes in our lives.

The practice of chanting Daimoku, effectively polishes this lens, and clarifies our Karma, allowing us to experience the world as it really is; to see everyone’s humanity without delusion. Our conceptions become purified of delusion, and we can perceive the Mystic Law inherent in all living beings. In essence, we aim to encourage our bodhisattva spirit to emerge as second nature, and thus enjoy the freedom of Buddhahood and true happiness. When we can achieve this, then we are able to distinguish our consciousness from wisdom, and transcend our ego.

The Realm of Living Beings

We have spent considerable time to describe the five components, so now let’s consider how living beings exist amongst one another.

Formed of the temporary union of the five components, we all manifest and experience the Ten Worlds from moment to moment. Unless we spend our entire life away from any human influence, then it is fair to say that none of us exists in perfect isolation. The realm of living beings, therefore represents a collective body of individuals. This could mean our immediate family, our workplace, society, our country or the entire phenomenon of humanity.

While we may all share each other’s company, it is important to note that because we are all expressing different life states at any given moment, then our collective experiences will never precisely match. Ask an audience what they gained from watching the Merchant of Venice at the theatre, for example, and you will receive several hundred different answers. Some will associate with Bassanio’s desire for Portia’s hand in marriage, while others will feel he is selfish to put Antonio in jeopardy by encouraging him to borrow money from Shylock. When Antonio defaults on his loan, some will want to see Antonio pay Shylock his pound of flesh, while others will feel Shylock is cruel and lacking in compassion.

In addition to being collectively influenced by shared experiences, we are additionally influenced by one another. People dominated by the three evil paths are more likely to flock together. For example, when I was bullied at school the handful of boys who did this were all of the same mind. They were all fearful of the “head bully”, and did as he said. Dominated by their animality, they were trapped in that social group, afraid of standing alone. Although they would tease me, none would individually attack me, again reinforcing their animality and lack of inner mettle.

Social groups form around common interests and beliefs, and the lower worlds are key in the formation of the worst social groups – racists, sexists, religious cults and fundamentalists, paedophile rings, dog fighting rings etc. Such groups dehumanise, and take away our freedom to experience happiness.

On the other hand, people who focus their lives on the noble paths tend to flock together in more altruistic groupings, such as members of voluntary organisations, and charities, helping ease the suffering of people and animals.

So of course, when terrible events like the murder of Stephen Lawrence took place, then there will always be a mixed bag of reactions, some less palatable than others, but all based upon the life states of the commentator in question.

The Realm of the Environment

The realm of the environment refers to everything that is unable to express the five components (i.e. living beings), so this includes things like plants, rocks, rivers and man made objects.

Just like the relationship between ourselves and other living beings, our relationship with the environment is a symbiotic one. We cannot continually impose our greed, anger and foolishness on the environment without the environment reflecting these life states. Just as we experience the Ten Worlds, then our actions imbue the environment with these Ten Worlds.

I see this every morning when I take my dog for a walk in the local woodland, which is most beautiful. Teenagers regularly park up at night, eating takeaway food and drinking alcohol. They leave all of their bottles and empty cartons strewn around. If the debris were not cleared away daily, then eventually the rubbish would build up so deep that the teenagers would not find it to be an attractive spot any longer. The environment would reflect the inputs of their life condition.

Just as people tend to attract others who experience a similar life condition, so we are generally attracted to landscapes, environments and things that resonate with our own. Some people are town folk, some are country folk, some surround themselves with gadgets and status symbols, others surround themselves with books, and yet others enjoy minimalist surroundings.

The same land manifests different worlds depending on the observer. Nichiren quoted from the Vimalakirti Sutra thus,

There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds

So, to the teenagers above, the woodland provided them with somewhere to behave in a sociably irresponsible manner and get away with it. Their view of the woodland is impure, because they are making the causes that will lead to suffering (a world full of rubbish).

Members of Friends of Billbrook gather to collect litter

To me, the woodland is a place to enjoy nature’s beauty, contemplate things and get some exercise. I’ll pick up litter and broken glass, and try to maintain the natural beauty of the place. Without making any great moral judgement against the teenagers, I’m hopefully making causes that will lead to others enjoying the woodland (including the teenagers), without injury from broken glass.

Interestingly, although I might find the rubbish unsightly, and the broken glass dangerous, I’m sure one or two robins or other wild birds see the discarded bits of food as the world of rapture! Remember, all ten worlds are mutually possessed!

To echo Nichiren’s quote above, Richard Causton notes in his book, Buddhism in Daily Life.

…if, say, three people were standing in a small and completely bare room, at any one moment each person would have a slightly different perception of reality from the other two:

Now we have had a good look at the constituents that comprise the concept of Ichinen Sanzen, my final  essay on the subject will attempt to bring it all together, if only in a superficial way. Have a great week, and please provide feedback!

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